Depending on what you have heard about eastern Kentucky, or your own experiences there, you may have different impressions of Appalachian streams around the area. Some may envision picturesque creeks running through green valleys, while others may think of bright orange “streams” running over rip-rock.
Unfortunately, bright orange streams are commonplace in eastern Kentucky. The color is indicative of acid mine drainage, which is characterized by the oxidation of sulfide metals — in Appalachia, the compound is usually iron (II) disulfide, also known as pyrite. Fortunately not all streams in eastern Kentucky are contaminated from coal mining; however, if we do not address the main source of surface water contamination in the area — coal mining — in a few years, there may not be clean streams to protect. We must find better ways to address existing acid mine drainage and other water contamination in the area.
Last week, I traveled around eastern Kentucky to meet with some of the volunteers for Appalachian Water Watch, a program created in the spring of 2011 to train and equip coal-impacted citizens to test surface water throughout their community. Through surface water testing around coal mines, citizens become better informed about threats to their water and their health, and are empowered to address water pollution issues.
My first stop was in Benham, Ky., to meet with several members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth who live in the area. Many of them were born in the area, and several have worked as coal miners. They have all worked for many years to protect their communities against threats related to surface mining. While there has been some historical underground mining around Benham and Lynch, the immediate area is currently free of surface mines.
The result of this somewhat unique circumstance in eastern Kentucky is that rivers around Benham and Lynch have unusually high water quality, allowing the two towns to use the local rivers for municipal water. The city of Lynch receives its water from a reservoir supplied by Gap Branch and Looney Creek watersheds, which requires minimal treatment costs. The city of Benham receives its water from Kellioka coal seam to the south of Looney Creek. This source provides economic opportunities through the proposal of a water bottling operation. The water sources for both cities are all located immediately downstream of two proposed surface mines on Looney Ridge, making city-wide water contamination from future mining activities a very real threat. (more…)